Collaborative arts and science program, STAGE, comes to UChicago

In yet another new merger of the arts and sciences on the University of Chicago campus, a theater laboratory has been established in the Institute for Molecular Engineering.

Nancy Kawalek, who joined the IME this summer as a professor and distinguished fellow in the arts, science and technology, is moving her cross-disciplinary lab—Scientists, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration—into the Reynolds Club. STAGE will develop theater pieces inspired by science and technology. Moreover, technology will be used in the staging of the plays to enhance the storytelling.

Working alongside established scientists and professional artists, UChicago students will have an opportunity to contribute to the STAGE lab’s collaborative process. “I’ve already met several talented and dynamic students in the short time I’ve been here,” Kawalek said. “I’m excited at the prospect of working with undergraduate and graduate students from a variety of disciplines.”

Kawalek originally founded STAGE in 2005, at the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she was a studio professor in the film and media studies department and the media arts and technology program.

Functioning as a “Collaboratory,” STAGE isn’t typical, Kawalek said. “We don’t start with a script; everything is created collaboratively through research and improvisation, working together in the same room as much as possible. What the team comes up with can be so imaginative and different, so fresh and interesting.”

Kawalek, a director, actor and writer with a background in theater and a long history of working in the professional theater world, developed the idea for STAGE after a conversation with a scientist back in 2001.

“He talked about how many of the great scientific discoveries resulted from ‘accidents,’” she recalled, “a chance encounter, an unexpected ‘blip’ in the data.” It was then that Kawalek began thinking about using the creative process of experimental science as a model for creative theater-making. “I also began to think about how much science and technology influence our everyday lives, and how intriguing it might be to see stories incorporating those subjects on stage.”

How do you make science and technology integral to the stories you’re telling without limiting the subject matter to biographies or science lectures disguised as plays, without compromising the science, and without merely using technology to achieve spectacle? And how do you do that on stage?

“You need to find a human story that somehow echoes or parallels or aligns with the science. How can you weave the science into an emotional journey? Granted, it’s very, very challenging to do this skillfully and artfully. It takes more time to work in this way, to allow for mistakes and to see where those accidental discoveries may take you. It’s difficult and not everything works,” Kawalek said, “but making mistakes is critical to the process. Being open to possibilities—serendipity—can ultimately lead to great discoveries in both science and art, and it’s those discoveries that can have an impact.”

The scientists have certainly been enthusiastic, Kawalek said. “We knew we were on the right track when scientists and engineers began devoting significant amounts of time to working with us,” she said. “Their schedules are so demanding, but they want to actively participate. Our collaborators have ranged from theoretical physicists to neuroscientists. They find it stimulating, they’re excited that we want to make their work accessible to the public, and some say they think working with artists may even suggest a new idea or approach for their own scientific research.”

In order to accommodate STAGE, the first floor theater in the Reynolds Club has undergone a major renovation. Kawalek has worked with an architect, acoustic experts and a theater consultant.

“The idea is to create an especially flexible space,” she said, “a black box space with technical capabilities in which we can experiment with all kinds of technology and have the freedom to explore.” Support space and offices for STAGE will be located on the third floor in the Reynolds Club.

The location for STAGE is ideal for involving students, said Eleanor Daugherty, assistant vice president for student life and associate dean of the College. “Reynolds Club is a community space that harbors student inventiveness. STAGE is all about inventiveness.”

Kawalek is passionate about STAGE and the new possibilities at the University of Chicago. “Interdisciplinarity is in the DNA of this institution. It’s such a fertile ground for creative, scientific and artistic activity.”